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Village Council

Village Council — Mayor’s Court proposal stalls

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At Village Council’s May 21 meeting, Police Chief Brian Carlson asked Council for more time before Council votes on whether to require that local police send all appropriate cases to the local Mayor’s Court rather than Xenia Municipal Court. Mayor Pam Conine backed Carlson’s appeal in asking for a delay before Council potentially approves legislation to send appropriate misdemeanor cases to the local court. The legislation had been recommended to Council by the Justice System Task Force, or JSTF.

“I’m simply requesting you give us more time to look at a full year’s worth of data,” Chief Carlson said to Council, referring to 2018 numbers on how many local cases are being sent to Mayor’s Court and how many to the Xenia court. “We didn’t end up where we were in 2017 overnight, and it will take time to climb out.”

Carlson was referring to a past shift in police department practice, especially obvious in 2016 and early 2017, when local  officers sent more misdemeanor cases to the county court in Xenia rather than the local court.

Carlson said he largely agrees with the JSTF recommendation and is moving the department toward the goal of using the local court more robustly

“I’m on the same side as JSTF,” he said. “The numbers [of cases going to Mayor’s Court] are growing.”

However, Carlson also expressed concern that the proposed legislation would remove an officer’s discretion in assessing the appropriate venues for their cases. 

The decline in the use of the local court became one component of many villagers’ growing concerns in recent years over what some perceived as a growing distrust between local police and community members, exacerbated by significant police turnover. After the JSTF, a Council-appointed citizen group, was formed in September 2016 to look into these concerns, the group made a variety of recommendations to Council for making the local department more progressive, including shifting misdemeanor cases back to the local court. 

At the May 21 meeting, several Mayor’s Court advocates made the case to Council for using the local court.

  The Xenia court tends to be more punitive, more costly and more difficult to navigate than the local court, according to local attorney Laura Curliss, a citizen volunteer with the Justice System Task Force.

“Let me tell you, you don’t want to go there,” Curliss said, regarding Xenia Municipal Court.

To Council member Judith Hempfling, Council liaison to the JSTF, the most important issue is the negative effect on low-income villagers sent to the Xenia court, who may encounter higher court costs along with the costs of transportation.

“The overarching issue is the disparate impact on poor people,” she said.

But there are benefits to the Xenia court for some people, according to a written statement to Council from Mayor Conine. Especially, she said, the county court has some resources not available locally.

“For example, there are services dealing with mental health or addiction issues already in place in Xenia Municipal Court that can provide valuable help to a defendant — services that we do not have in place to offer,” she wrote.

By state law, all felonies must go to the Xenia court, as must misdemeanors that involve domestic violence, assault, stalking, menacing and aggravated trespass. Typically, according to a report by Carlson, Mayor’s Court hears cases involving violations of municipal ordinances including parking, standing and moving violations. Some crimes, including disorderly conduct, theft and misdemeanor drug charges, may be heard either in Mayor’s Court or the Xenia Court, depending on the discretion of the arresting officer.

Mayor’s Court was established in the 1950s by the Village Charter as a venue for dispensing justice on local crimes in a more informal and less punitive manner than the county court system, according to longtime Council member Tony Bent in a 2016 News article on the court. While Mayor’s Court was used robustly through the tenure of Chief John Grote, who retired in 2013, later police chiefs, including Dave Hale, expressed distrust for the local court, and encouraged officers to use the county court instead. 

Police department data gathered by the JSTF indicates that in 2013, 492 local cases were assigned to Mayor’s Court and 126 to the Xenia court, excluding cases not legally allowed in the local court. By 2016, those numbers had shifted, with 170 cases going to Mayor’s Court and 389 to the Xenia court.

In her request for a six-month delay before Council legislates a preference for Mayor’s Court, Mayor Conine also cited a “confluence of newness,” in Village government in which a new mayor, new police chief, new clerk of court and new community outreach specialist are still getting used to their jobs.

“As a general rule, individuals in new positions fall into a learning curve about not only their position, but also the potentials within their position,” she wrote.

Council Vice-President Marianne MacQueen supported the positions of Conine and Carlson in requesting a delay, along with consideration for an officer’s discretion in assigning cases.

“I do think the [police department] culture is changing,” MacQueen stated. “I think we should encourage all cases that can reasonably go to Mayor’s Court to go there, but I would rather trust the chief in educating his troops. I think officers should have discretion.”

Council member Kevin Stokes stated that he agreed with MacQueen’s argument.

However, Council member Lisa Kreeger questioned Conine’s “confluence of newness” as a reason for delay. If every person elected to a two-year term, such as that of mayor, needs six months to get oriented, not much would get done, she said.

“Just newness is not a reason not to move forward with courage,” she said.

And she expressed concern that while the police department has become more progressive since the hiring of Carlson a year ago, it could also shift to more conservative policies in the future.

“Just as these people have changed, they could change again,” she said.

Council President Brian Housh called for more information before Council moves ahead, especially concerning resources available on the county level that are not available locally, and the costs associated with the Xenia court. 

“I think the idea is that we’re all on the same page, but taking more time makes sense,” he said. 

Council agreed that Hempfling, JSTF alternate Kreeger, Village Manager Patti Bates, Mayor Conine and Chief Carlson should meet to determine what additional information is needed before bringing the resolution back to Council.

In other Council business:

• Council unanimously passed a resolution that creates an Economic Development Incentive Policy. The policy identifies incentive opportunities such as low interest loans or grants, abatement of taxes or income; land sale or swap, utility easements or extensions, fee waivers, and others as deemed appropriate. While the Village has offered incentives to businesses in the past, it makes sense to have a clear and consistent policy for doing so, Council members said.

• Council passed a variety of ordinances that update language in the Village zoning code.

• Council unanimously approved a resolution making Johnnie Burns, the current superintendent of electricity and water distribution, the new Village public works director. In his new position, Burns will oversee what were formerly the electric, water distribution, streets and parks departments, now combined into the Village public works department.

According to Village Manager Bates, Burns has been acting in the capacity of public works director since last fall, when former Superintendent of Streets and Parks Jason Hamby left the Village.

“He has done an exemplary job,” Bates said of Burns. “His knowledge, expertise and ability to figure out the best thing to do for the Village astounds me every day.”

According to the contract, Burns’ annual salary in his new position will be $95,000.

• Council approved a resolution that awards a contract to Hi-Tech Electrical Contractors, LLC for the removal and replacement of 90 electrical poles, at a cost of $49,000.

• Matthew Lawson was sworn in as a new member of the Environmental Commission.

• Council heard a presentation on the local need for affordable housing by members of Shannon Wilson’s fourth-grade class at Mills Lawn School. The presentation was the culmination of a yearlong project-based-learning, or PBL, project. 

“You guys captured the essence of this issue,” Council President Brian Housh said to the class following the presentation. “It’s why this has become a priority for Council.”

• Before its regular meeting, Council met in executive session for the purpose of discussion of the potential purchase of real estate.

• Council’s next regular meeting is Monday, June 4, at 7 p.m. in Council chambers.

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